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The Great Migration and the Search for a New Life

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What was the boll weevil? The boll weevil was a highly destructive insect that entered the United States from Mexico. It battered the southern economy in the period between 1910 and 1920 by inflicting vast amounts of damage on the region's cotton crops. Many African-Americans in the South suffered grievously in the resulting economic downturn, and left the South to seek greater economic opportunity in the North.

On the March

Growth of the African-American population in northern cities was dramatic in the early part of the century. Indianapolis was typical: the number of African-Americans in the city was just under 16,000 in 1900. By 1920, the figure was over 34,000. (Source: Indiana Historical Society.)

The combination of newspaper reports with word-of-mouth advice, active recruiting by northern labor agents, and promises of free transportation made migration attractive to many. In 1910, the North and the South were so dissimilar that they could have been two different countries. The southern states were economically backward. They had fewer schools and higher rates of illiteracy than their northern counterparts, who also boasted cultural attractions and booming industries.

Also, new farm machinery was being created, equipment that could perform the field work faster and more efficiently. This drove thousands of poor tenant farmers off the land and toward the cities. In 1915, a severe boll weevil infestation destroyed millions of acres of cotton, along with the jobs of those who raised and picked it.

Migration also increased with the advent of World War I, in response to the large number of unskilled factory job openings as manufacturers boosted production for the war. The hostilities kept European laborers from emigrating to the United States to fill these positions.

Recruiting scouts sent to the South found their job easy (once they'd purchased the “recruitment licenses” required by southern state governments). There was no shortage of volunteers. However, many agents took advantage of these willing workers. They insisted that African-American laborers sign harsh and unfair labor contracts requiring back-breaking work and yielding poor pay.

Key Events: The Great Migration

  • 1883: The Supreme Court nullifies the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
  • 1892: The Supreme Court upholds racial segregation; formulates “separate but equal” doctrine.
  • 1900-1910: At least 846 lynchings are recorded; the vast majority of the victims are African-Americans.
  • 1915: The boll weevil wreaks havoc on agriculture in the South.
  • 1917: United States enters World War I.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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